Building a Budget Bathroom

Kate Heffernan
Jan 30, 2018 · 13 min read

As a design blog addict, I’ve seen a million bathroom design plans. I used to click through to see the prices of each item and think to myself, this isn’t so bad. Surely you can do a beautiful bathroom and not spend an outrageous amount of money in the process. What do you need really? A faucet and some tile? Maybe a pretty mirror. Easy.

The thing is, there are tons of items not on that mood board, and those costs add up. I thought I’d walk you guys through the guest suite (aka basement) bath for our house and do some real talk on the monies involved.

For context, this bathroom was a total afterthought in our renovation. It was not in our original plan or estimate so I wanted to do this bathroom as cheaply as possible while still keeping it nice looking.

Here is the layout:

The bathroom is about 5' x 7' which is small but totally adequate for a bathroom. I think standard would be 5' x 8'. Since this was brand new construction (in the new basement of the addition), they had to run all the plumbing and build out new walls and all the builder-y stuff. I assume it would be different if you were adding an additional bathroom to an existing space and significantly different if you were just making updates to an existing bathroom. In any case, my contractor estimated $9.6k for this bathroom addition. The line in the quote that read “add bath downstairs (fixtures by owner) — $9600”.

So let’s talk about those “fixtures by owner”. Here’s my somewhat half assed designer-y mood board as you may recognize from a few posts ago:

Floor tile, shower tile, sink and faucet. Bing bang boom. Bathroom. What’s next? 💅

No.

It’s all just more complicated than that. Here’s a peak at my item tracking list for the house:

There are so many pieces for each room and once you think you have them all, you realize, oh shit, what about the toilet paper holders!?

Here are some hidden costs in bathroom renos — even if everything goes perfectly according to plan:

Per Piece Tile Pricing

Despite my chronic tile phobia, I have to say, I came into the choices for this bathroom with a super chill attitude. Clé was having a big moving sale so I mulled over a few designs for the floor tile but by the time I decided and went to go buy it, most of them were sold out. No problem. I’m very laid back and casual.

I found another on-sale design that would work, added it my cart and was subsequently shocked by the price. Wait, this was only $2.67 per tile (an apparent steal!), how could it be $256 for this tiny bathroom. Well the tiles I found were 8"x8", not 12"x12". So while it was $2.67/tile, it was also $6/sqft. Do not be fooled by per tile pricing. Ok cool, no problem! Going with the flow. I’m breezy.

Tile Shipping

$250 is still a good price. Ok checking out… the total is $500. Wut? Yes, the shipping is also $250?!?!? All of a sudden I’m paying $500 for 40 sqft of tile. Don’t do the math on the price per sqft. You’ll cry. (It’s $12.50).

Shipping is the big hidden cost of tile. I tried a lot of different things to get around it. I even tried my hand at being a pushy bitch to the sales person at a tile store with only limited success. This is a direction I cannot recommend.

Here’s the story, judge me if you will: I got a quote from a place my contractor uses all the time for the penny tile in this bathroom. $14/sqft (insane). In the 10 minutes I spent on hold waiting for this quote, the hold recording lady explained their “price match guarantee” about 1000 times.

My contractor used this vendor a lot and said he’d be happy to pick product up from them directly. Aha! I’d found the solution to my tile shipping costs dilemma.

So I asked the sales guy to match this price I found on Floor and Decor’s website where they had penny tiles listed for $2.99 PER PIECE PEOPLE. Remember lesson one: do not be fooled by per piece pricing. This tile is $3.48/sqft. Here’s what I got from him in return:

And this “price match” quote

$836 for 170 sqft. That’s $4.88/sqft. He matched the price including what Floor and Decor would have charged to ship me the product. Now granted, that’s better than the $14 the originally quoted (wow $14 would have been an insane rip off) but the whole point was to pay for the product and do the pickup at my own expense instead of paying for the freight.

Hmmmm. I dunno about this logic. This is when I called him and got all bitchy — scratch that — assertive, on his ass. This was some shady shit in my opinion. If I’m going to pick up the tile, you can’t roll the cost of shipping into your price match.

Btw, I could have just picked up from Floor and Décor, but I’d have to go to NJ. If there is one near you, I think they are the cheapest place around and I see nothing wrong with the product there especially for basic pieces.

Maybe you’re like, damn, I didn’t realize Kate was such a freakin cheapskate. And to be fair, $200 on a project that your spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on is basically a drop in the bucket. But those drops can add up! Like for this super low key, very chill, nbd bathroom, I’ve already paid nearly $500 in shipping for tile.

Annnnnywho. Glad I got that off my chest. I eventually got him down to $700 ($4.11/sft) and moved on because it’s not worth spending your short life angry at a tile salesman.

Just for the sake of keeping an eye on the overall number, only half of this penny tile was for the bathroom, the other half I’m using in the laundry room, so let’s say it’s $350.

As far as I can tell, the best way to save on tile shipping is to try to order all your tile at once from as few places as possible, even if that means missing sales. Plan ahead, be organized and try to consolidate your vendors. The shipping usually goes up a bit with volume, but not by much.


You: Thank god, I think she’s finished talking about tile! Praise.

Me: Now let’s talk about tile edging!!

Tile Edging and Finishing Pieces

Listen, you have to have something on the edge of your tile, you can’t just have the raw edge hanging out there. It’s like leaving your fly open. It’s bad manners and creeps people out. Edge pieces are one of the reasons that it’s hard to plan way ahead and get your orders in all together. Some of these edges don’t become clear until you’re a little further along in your project.

In any case, you have a few of options for this:

  1. Put some grout on the edge: In some cases, this is totally fine but can look a little messy and eventually cracks. It doesn’t work very well with a round tile, like a penny tile or tiles that aren’t a standard thickness. For instance I used a lot of cement tiles in my house which are much thicker than standard porcelain or ceramic and a grout line like this wouldn’t cover those edges.

2. Schluter Metal Edging: This is a little strip of metal that they used to line the edge of the tile. I think this is a fine solution and probably what I’ll do in my basement bathroom. If you’re thinking it looks a little cheap, I’d agree and posit that it looks cheap because it is cheap. It’s about $5–6 per 8 ft piece. So $0.75/linear foot. Cheap AF.

3. Pencil tile or other decorative edges: These are little pieces designed to finish off a tile edge. I think they are objectively a nice and thoughtful way to finish tile but they didn’t really go with my minimalist thing I was doing in this house. I didn’t get quotes on these but I suspect they are similarly priced as the bull nose.

4. Bull nose: Such a good name. This is a tile that has a finished edge (can be rounded or square). I think this is the nicest way to finish off an edge but it’s also pricey. The bull nose I used in my upstairs bathrooms was something like $2.25/per piece ($3.37 linear foot). Not nothing.

These prices can drastically range from style to style and not every tile you like will have a correlating bull nose, pencil or finishing piece to match. In fact I would say most don’t. You also often have to run the bull nose in a different direction which is why you end up with some edges looking like this:

In my guest suite (are you guys buying this or should I just go back to calling it a basement?) bathroom I only needed 10 linear feet of edging, but in my master bath I needed 60 linear feet because you need this to go around the door and window in the shower. For the basement bath the price was negligible but the more complicated the space, the more edging you’ll need and it can add up.

In any case, edging/finishing tile is a whole thing. Once you pick this out, promise yourself that you will never question, nay, think about it ever again. It is the only way.

Who knew I had another 500 words in me about tile? And I haven’t even touched on grout. I’m going to stick with telling you, I paid about $40/bag of grout. I needed about two bags per bathroom. As for color, there is nothing I could say that would be more comprehensive or illuminating than what Emily Henderson has to say about grout color, so I’ll just point you there.


Now for everything else outside the tile.

Toilet

I got the same American Standard toilet for all three bathrooms. It was $300. I looked at spiffy modern ones but they creeped me out. Considering it’s function, I just wanted it to look like what it was, not some kind of spaceship and I didn’t want it to cost a fortune. I don’t want my toilet to recognize me and heat up the seat as I walk in the bathroom. Creepy, get out of my house.

Sink/Vanity

I didn’t have a lot of space for a sink in here so I did a small pedestal sink. As far as I can tell, this is the least expensive way to do a bathroom sink. Vanities, even the fairly lame ones from Home Depot, are pricey and in many cases you still have to buy the sink and countertop to put on them. Forget about the nice looking ones, those do not a budget bathroom make.

I got this inoffensive Kohler sink on Amazon with free shipping for $246. Are there cheaper sinks? Yes but most of them are ugly and many of the not ugly ones had either 4 inch centerset faucet holes or a single faucet hole. This is the only one I could find that was small enough for the bathroom, reasonably nice looking and had an 8 inch widespread faucet hole.

You may be asking what the hell I’m talking about. Well most pedestal sinks have pre drilled holes for your faucet. Some have no holes and are intended for a wall mounted faucet but that’s much more complicated.

This is basically two different versions of the same faucet. The one on the left is 8 inch widespread, the one on the right is 4 inch centerset. I got the 8 inch because the 4 inch looked like a contractor grade rental apartment to me. I probably spent about an extra $100 between the sink and the faucet because of this aesthetic choice. The faucet was $67 from Home Depot and I picked it up in person (no shipping 🙌). I honestly just didn’t like any of the single faucet hole options that I saw although I do think they are sometimes nicer to use in a bathroom. Form over function.

Shower Doors

For the shower I hunted long and hard for a modestly priced, not ugly shower door and I came up with these two options. Andrew veto’ed both (he has v good taste) and we ended up going with a stationary piece of which is bafflingly more expensive than a glass door. About $600.

Transition pieces

Don’t forget the slab of stone to put on the step into the shower. I think this was about $200.

Here you might be saying to yourself, oh I won’t need this piece because I’m going to have an integrated shower floor like the very sleek bathroom with tree photo above. Like most things in construction, the simpler it looks the more complicated it actually is to build. I did a flush shower floor in my master bath and it had to be framed in with a dropped floor from the very beginning to accommodate plumbing. This type of floor is pretty impractical in a basement and I’m not sure that saves you any money at all (in fact probably the opposite).

Rough-ins/Valves

For the shower trim, I bought this mostly ugly but decidedly ok looking shower set by Pfister, a brand name Andrew simply will not stop making fun of.

It is pretty plain Jane but it has a hand sprayer which I wanted since I plan to use this bathroom to wash the doggy as well. Of course there is always another surprise price increase when buying plumbing fixtures since you need to buy the “rough in” valves for them which is basically what makes them work behind the wall, not just the handles you see. What was listed at $265, is actually $326 once all the items are in the cart with shipping and tax.

Miscellaneous Plumbing

There are some other random plumbing items that I didn’t cover here and that’s basically because I passed the cost of these on to my contractor. Things like the sink drain and shower drain (which can be basically nothing or up to $600 if you want to do one of those linear drains) I just had him source. The standard versions of these items are pretty inexpensive.

If you trust your GC, which I do, I think this is a good way to go. I don’t think he’s going to go out and buy the most expensive shower drain he can find. I think he’ll just pick the one he usually uses that he thinks works well. To be clear, I’m still paying for the item, I just didn’t buy it directly.

My rule was, I picked the items when it was an aesthetic choice. For instance, everything in my upstairs bathroom is matte black finish so I wanted my sink drains to also be matte black, which meant I picked them out and bought them myself. I’m sure this works differently with many contractors but that’s how we did it.

Storage

There is not a lot of storage in this little bathroom (ah the draw back of the pedestal sink) so I think I’m going to hang in-use towels with a couple of simple hooks on the back of the door ($10/piece) and then have some kind of little shelf storage on the floor. I have’t decided on one yet, but probably something like this for $99.

Decor

Tack on another $150 for a vanity mirror, $17 for a hand towel ring, $16 for a tp holder (budget choices) and we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Lighting

Speaking of light, I did not do any additional light fixtures in this bathroom. I have overhead lighting and that’s it. Both aesthetically and functionally, a bathroom is objectively much nicer with some vanity lighting near the mirror. I may live to regret this choice but there it is. I felt like this bathroom was going to be infrequently used so it just wasn’t worth the extra $300 or so, plus the hours from the electrician to put in the vanity lighting. Or maybe I just ran out of steam. Judge me if you will.

Ok let’s tally it up:

So about $3000 of “fixtures by owner”. What do you think? Is that more or less than you thought? I look at this and think… damn you tile!!

But what can you do really? Just breathe and try to be breezy when you can.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade